Challenging Take on Alternative Realities

I increasingly find myself at a loss to explain why throwaway movies find theatrical distribution deals and perfectly good little films get savaged by critics and ignored by actual audiences. 

At least three times this year I have found myself squarely in the camp of the irrelevant, obtuse, and, well, square.  (And I’ll have another opportunity when I review The Tree of Life this Friday.) First there was Soul Surfer, which barely mustered a 50% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes.  Last week, it was Love’s Kitchen, hated by all two critics at RT that bothered to review it, and scoring only 50% with the audience.

This week, it’s Chatroom—which, despite being directed by celebrated Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata (The Ring, etc.) and featuring solid performances from hot young British actors Aaron Johnson, Matthew Beard, and Imogen Poots, gets pasted with a 10% critic rating and only 34% from the audience!  What the heck?

Aaron Johnson as Matthew in ChatroomThis is a solidly-scripted, intelligent film with a dynamite production design and a couple of truly standout performances.  Aaron Johnson is Matthew, a disturbed, suicidal cutter who, in the wake of family counseling with his successful but cold and distant parents, turns to the Internet for some sadistic pseudo-therapy.  He hangs his shingle on his chatroom “Chelsea Teens!” and soon finds himself “in relationship” with Jim, who is also suicidal and on medication for depression; Eva, a model who is tired of the illusion of beauty and the shallowness of fashion… but still wants a little danger in her life; Emily, a socialite who honestly thinks of rebellion as quaintly fun; and Mo, who has inappropriate feelings for his best friend’s 11-year-old sister.  Matthew very quickly determines that Jim is the most fragile of the bunch, and sets out to destroy him.

If the setup sounds like an updated Breakfast Club, well, it is.  Five teens come together under artificial circumstances and form unlikely bonds, coming to new understandings of themselves and their relationships to others—except Nakata’s sensibility is darker and edgier than that of John Hughes (though clearly not edgy enough, here, for critics or fans).  But imagine that you really got into the darkness of Judd Nelson’s and Ally Sheedy’s characters instead of just imagining what urges and fantasies they indulge when they’re all alone.  And imagine Breakfast Club half-staged in an alternate online reality where the characters reinvent themselves as they wish they could be, rather than who they manage to be in the real world.

In a way, Chatroom is also an updated Dead Poets Society in which Chelsea Teens!’ denizens also figure out that, like the members of the Society, play-acting at being adult—and being hip—can have tragic consequences.  Just imagine what Nwanda might become in the Internet age, what pressures Neil Perry might crack under in an overcrowded urban setting, or what Todd Anderson might act like if cyberbullying convinced him to go off his meds.  Imagine how any disturbed teen might react when passively watching other teens take their lives on webcams.

Still, I can see why Chatroom feels more like Cheatroom to those who want it to do more and be more than it is, to steal a line from Dead Poets.  The film is rated R for “disturbing violent content, some sexual material and brief language.”  And yes, the disturbing violent content is there in about as strong a dose as you’d want before crossing over into NC-17 territory.  But these teens are far more sexually restrained than those in, say, American Pie or even Animal House, and that’s remarkable given the lurid nature of what you can actually find with little trouble on the web.  And when it comes to language, this almost feels like an episode of Glee.

But for me, that’s a recommendation.  Chatroom is a reminder that you don’t have to be trashy to be edgy, prurient to be challenging, or boundary-pushing to be creative.  I bought not only the alternate personalities that Jim, William, Eva, Emily, and Mo created for themselves, but the “reality” in which they lived, too.  And I guarantee you I’ll be revisiting Aaron Johnson’s performance as Matthew, and especially Matthew Beard’s Jim.  These are eye-turning takes on teen angst, presented in a film that, in the best of all possible worlds, might wake up a few parents to what’s going on behind closed doors.

Frankly, forget carping critics and disappointed teen audiences.  This is intelligent, mature filmmaking for the parents in the house who have to deal with a reality they don’t understand.

Courtesy of the film’s distributor, Greg screened a promotional copy of Chatroom.